With Drawn Arms @ Montreal International Black Film Festival

For the latest edition of the MIBFF (Montreal International Black Film Festival), the opening film was a documentary. A documentary that starts with something that happened 53 years ago and yet is just as relevant. Maybe even more so.

At the Olympic Games in Mexico in 1968, the 200 metre race saw two Americans win medals – John Carlos and Tommie Smith, with Smith coming away with the gold medal. When the two Americans were on the podium they did something which became one of the most memorable of the long history of the Olympics. With the American anthem being played and the flag being raised the two Black men raised one black leather-clad fist up in the air. It was an act many saw as dishonourable, but they were just trying to call attention to the fact that they did not enjoy equal rights in the country they ran for and lived in.

That one act made headlines everywhere. As the gesture was seen as a political act, which is against the games’ rules, Carlos and Smith were sent home immediately and suspended by the IOC. Once home they were treated by large parts of the American population as enemies. As such they suffered harassment, death threats and economic hardship. All this led to Smith falling into a depression and contemplating suicide.

Now, over 50 years later and in a time in which the civil rights and treatment of Black Americans is once again at the forefront of conversations, artist Glenn Kaino along with Smith himself will tell the true story of the man through art.

Using a lengthy interview with Tommie Smith, in which he talks of his life and the Olympics, along with former member of the House of Representatives, the late John Lewis, sports announcer Brent Musburger, who has recently been heavily criticized for the racist comments he made during the coverage of the 1968 Olympics, former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, U.S. Women’s soccer player Megan Rapinoe, and actor/activist Jesse Williams we get a clearer picture of the man and the lasting effect of that one gesture.

The fist raised became a symbol for the black movement and Smith is largely seen as a hero today. Yet Black Americans still are not treated as equals. NFL quarterback Kaepernick was run out of the league because he began protesting the inequality by taking a knee before games during the national anthem. Rapinoe started doing the same and, as she states, she was not punished because she is white.

Much of the documentary is quite moving. Especially when Smith speaks of the repercussions he faced after the ’68 Olympics. How often being courageous has consequences. Sometimes heavy ones.

Racial and social injustice continues today and makes documentaries like this one relevant and necessary.